Tribalism, Nationalism and Civilization

On Giving, Receiving and Taking: Parashat Ki Tisa

The Hebrews in flight from Egypt and from slavery were in flight from one dominant idea of a civilization to another. The first was a given. The latter had to be created. But from what? From tribes and tribalism. By means of what? By forging tribes into a nation. But the goal was not nationalism per se, but a new form of civilization. The idea of a Jewish nation was an interim stepping stone between a form of tribalism and a new civilization, a new way of organizing the affairs of men.

In a recent webinar featuring Martin Kramer and Fouad Ajami, they discussed Bernard Lewis’ idea of a clash of civilizations which he adopted from Arnold Toynbee in the nineteen fifties and bequeathed to Samuel P. Huntington, the concept itself shape shifting along the way. In a 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, Huntington wrote an essay called, “The Clash of Civilizations” after Bernard Lewis had resurrected the idea from his earlier writings to articulate the concept of a civilization as the basic system for ordering the affairs of humans.

In September of 1990, Lewis had written an essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” In it, he adumbrated and interpreted what would happen just over a decade later on 9/11 when four passenger planes were crashed, two into the Twin Towers in New York, one into the Pentagon and a fourth before hitting the Capitol. That prime symbol of American civilization and democracy was preserved from damage because of the bravery of the passengers on the fourth flight. They revolted against the hijackers and crashed the plane before it could reach the building, the same Capitol that would be so desecrated two decades later on 6 January of this year by enraged American insurrectionists.

America, and the West in general, is caught up in a new stage of the struggle over a new organization of peoples based on a global order, based on international law, based on humanitarian values using American nationalism as either a stepping stone forward into this emerging world order or backwards into a revival of tribalism. James Reston Jr. just published a novel ten years in the writing called, The 19th Hijacker: A Novel that takes us into the mind of one of the hijackers who almost dropped out of the whole destructive enterprise but did not.

Through his internal turmoil, through the tension he felt between his love for his girlfriend and his tribalistic oath of fealty to Osama bin Laden, he eventually surrendered to the tribalist idea of honour among men and went on to be the nineteenth hijacker to sacrifice his life for the cause which he had begun to doubt, but from which he had been unable to extricate himself. Reston takes us into his mind by means of tape recordings made by that same girlfriend, Karina Ilgun. It is a brilliant exploration not simply of radical Islam as an ideology, but of rabid tribalism itself and a code that makes men surrender their loyalties to follow other men to whom they have sworn an oath of allegiance.

Bernard Lewis had first used “civilization” as a category of thought back in 1957 as a way of comprehending the re-emergence of Islamic thought as a powerful idea to hold human loyalties in Turkey in the twentieth century in a clash with Ataturk’s agenda of modernization and remaking the Ottoman Empire into service to a revived Turkish nationalism and modernism. The clash was not between civilizations, but within a civilization from its old form back to its deeper tribal roots to be reborn in a new vision of civilization. It was a clash within the historical development of a system for ordering the affairs of humanity.

Arnold Toynbee had conceived of history as a story of clashing tectonic plates grinding against one another and creating eruptions and upheavals. Lewis inherited, adopted and adapted the Toynbee perspective which focused on a politics that wove law, culture, economics, social organization and religion into a coherent system – such as the idea of the West. The story of recent decades has been in good part a tale of a war of a classical form of Islam in rivalry with a modernizing form, a battle through which Christianity and Judaism had already traveled, though the voyage through the looking glass remained incomplete in both.

There are and have been many books now written about the rebirth of tribalism and identity politics, of ideas that are transferred in silos cut off from external influences and of populism and a politics based on a tribalist pledged loyalty to an individual seen as representing and espousing the views and values of a tribe, a tribe built on honour and loyalty rather than the rule of law and a common pledge to uphold an economic system built on the breastplate of a material distribution system pledged ultimately, not to the personal acquisition of property per se, but to concern for others, to creating a welfare civilization committed to the well-being of all.

Beshalach, the portion of the Torah we read a month ago, began in the wilderness of Sin and the emergence of the Israelites through stages into a higher loyalty, one to God. But it begins at the basic level with a cry and a thirst for water and a revolt against the leadership of Moses. Moses asks his followers: “why cry out to me? I am not your provider. I am not your old-fashioned tribal leader. Call out to God.” (Exodus 171-2) Moses is then taught by God his first lesson in peace, order and good governance. You begin by coopting other leaders, other tribal chiefs respected by their followers, and teach them how to supply the people’s basic collective needs, the core infrastructure that allows a society to function. Unless a polity can accomplish this, it will not survive.

Then the clash. In the Torah it is not fundamentally between civilizations, though it is that. It is not fundamentally within a civilization, though it is that. It is a clash between God and Amalek, between good and evil. It is a clash of values. (Exodus 17:8)

As a clash between civilizations, the old Egyptian order of gods that cattle to be sacred. Hathor was the cow goddess. She was the mother of both heaven and earth, of the sky god, Horus, and the sun god, Ra responsible for everything that grows on earth and through whom order was created out of chaos. Ancient Egyptian cattle came to be considered so sacred that many Egyptian gods were given the form of cattle, not only Hathor, but Ptah (the Apis Bull), Menthu (the Bukha bull), and Atum-Ra (the Mnevis Bull). Gods each had functions and, in general, it was a functionalist system. What animals serve more functions for humans than cattle? The Israelite insurrectionists in this Torah portion rvert to worshipping a cow, but not a functioning bull, a beast of burden, but a useless cow crafted of gold – real idol if there ever was one.

Israelites commanded to reject idolatry were keen innovators in creating as pure an example as one could, a calf rather than a cow, and one made of an inert metal. The Israelites’ creation of a golden calf harked back to the civilization they were escaping by creating their own version that would not be the ancient Egyptian goddess, but an idolatrous form of their new God and, therefore, a wrong path. But one they were creating and choosing. Nevertheless, a wrong path. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The God of the Israelites upset that ruling Egyptian order and reduced that civilization to chaos as the God of the Hebrews led the Israelites towards a new idea of civilization, one built on freedom and not on slavery, one built on humans endowed with agency rather than ones bred to blindly obey, like a powerful bull pulling a plow.

But freedom is an ideal. A shortage of water is a reality. Freedom is an abstraction. An escape from one pandemic after another is the reality through which we must live. God had to teach the Israelites how to construct a very different civilization that would be based on the rule of law and not the cult of personality, that would be built on a common order of money and, therefore, economics rather than a pluralistic form of barter with no abstract representation of wealth to which the community could refer. The new civilization had to have a central bank that served as the guarantor of the value of money and overcame the arbitrariness of a barter system.

It would be a civilization built not on fate, not on a lottery, nor on divination in which one man claimed exclusive access to revelation, but on a rule of law known to all and written for all, and an order of economics, evident to all and for the benefit of all. The West would be well to remember what its mission is, what kind of civilization it is dedicated to building.

And it is a choice – a radical choice. It is about not holding property in other humans in perpetuity, whether though a form of slavery or indenture. How we escape from the grasp of that horrific system has a differential history for different peoples. But whatever stages it goes through and however the new vision is to be realized, one must keep one’s eye on the goal, a goal of freedom versus slavery, a system in which men no longer swear oaths to other individual men in a tribal system of honour but where humans serve a common sense of values and a common order of the rule of law applicable to all.

In such a system, leaders are not self-chosen based on their charisma and ability to attract a following. They are chosen because they are struggling to help their people find a way forward. We know and learn the way not be means of fate and a lottery, not by means of divination revealed only to the leader, but through respect for following a leader, a conditional respect dependent on whether that leader can find and forge the way, and to do so through caring, through sorge, through a commitment to the well-being of the people.

At the beginning of the parshat Ki Tisa, literally about taking rather than either giving or receiving, Moses remains the chosen, leader though he is in absentia on top of a mountain and no longer among the people in the tent of meeting where the people stood in awe of him. How does God reveal the truth and the way to Moses?  

Not by directions from on high. But in a conversation, face-to-face, informed by grace and compassion not power and coercion. (Exodus 33:19) The latter may be required to fight off enemies. But in governing your own people, people, persuasion is the means of communication. Moses must be persuaded by God and in turn persuade his people. And that value system created will be one by which the Israelites will be distinguished from every other people on the face of the earth. (Exodus 33:16) The narrative is about creating a civilization by building a nation and escaping tribalism.

Moses will then face forward and lead his people while God turns his face away where we only see God’s back. For we understand the self-revelation of God only by looking backwards, looking at history as it has unfolded. This is neither a lottery system of making choices in a form of fatalism nor making choices through divination and divine revelation to a single leader.

Let us start again. Carve two more tablets of the laws, replicas of those you shattered. For the rule of law will be the foundation of this new civilization delivered by a God that is not a jealous god any longer, for the gods of the dying civilization of Egypt have been wasted. God will be concerned with domestic order rather than a warrior god, a God compassionate and gracious, abounding in kindness and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6) How then is the compassion exhibited? Initially, only domestically. Not in foreign affairs.

Do not compromise with other competing civilizations. “No, you must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts.” (Exodus 34:13)

What does this civilization teach? It is harder to receive than to give, but it is wrong to take. It is very difficult to build a nation out of tribalism, but without wrapping the nation in a civilizational mission, it will be too easy to revert to tribalism, to populism, to charismatic authoritarian (and dishonest) leadership.

The tribe of Dan, and, hence, Oholiav Ahisamakh from that tribe, was the epitome of tribalism. The tribe of Judah, and Betzalel ben Uri of that tribe, represents nationalism, the best qualities of the Israelites as a nation. The two boys for their bar mitzvahs are selected to forge the vessels and utensils of the Mishkan.. But the ideal of civilization, of one who can identify with and serve all of humanity without discrimination, that for which the Mishkan is dedicated, is Yosef. Yosef or Joseph grew from a self-centred narcissist into the glory of civilization. It is the mission of Israel to become a nation that can and will serve civilization and not worship a golden calf.


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